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Bill Poole portrait from a tobacco company boxer profile card, circa the late 1880s.

“I Know Nothing”

Bill the Butcher

William Poole, also known as Bill the Butcher, was a founder of the street gang the Bowery Boys and a leader of the Know Nothing political movement in mid-19th century New York City. He was one of the most prominent gangsters in 19th Century New York. A butcher by trade who was very skilled with knives, he was a large, imposing man, and was known as one of the toughest street fighters in New York. He led a large gang of hoodlums of American descent, at the behest of the Native American political party. Their chief rivals were Irish gangsters under John Morrissey.

“The Butcher” was a champion New York City pugilist in 1855—before the Marquess of Queensbury rules—when kicking, biting and eye-gouging were acceptable tactics and “fight to the death” was more than a metaphor.  It was also a time when a challenge was likely to be issued out of pure hatred for your opponent. When John Morrissey, the Irish enforcer for Tammany Hall challenged Bill Poole of the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party it promised to be the ultimate grudge match. But when the fighters turned to knives and guns, all pretext of sport was gone. It would be Bill “The Butcher” Poole’s last fight.

On July 24th, 1821 William Poole aka Bill the Butcher was born. Originally from New Jersey, his parents moved to New York City in 1832 to open a butcher store in Washington Market. Poole learned his father’s trade and eventually took over the family store. In the 1840s Poole started the Washington Street Gang and became an infamous member of the Bowery Boys, a New York City Gang.

Neither of his parents’ first names is known, nor is his mother’s maiden name or occupation. His father was a butcher. Nothing specific is known of Poole’s earliest years in New Jersey or about his education. Poole moved with his family to New York City in 1832, when he was eleven years old. His father set up a butcher stand in Washington Market, a busy and growing food market located in Washington, Fulton, and Vesey Streets streets in Manhattan.

Bill Poole apprenticed with a butcher named William Berriman. During this period, the young man purportedly took pride in his work but earned a reputation as argumentative and quick to fight. The other “butcher boys” referred to him as a “tough customer.” Many feared him, while others respected him and were jealous of his pugilistic skills. He became known as a talented and brutal non-professional fighter among his peers. Upon completing his apprenticeship, Poole set up his own butcher stall at the same location as his father’s in Washington Market. He evidently acquired a large customer base and did well. At some unknown date, he also began running a saloon.

The successful business proprietor was also involved in illegal liquor sales and gambling and gained most of his notoriety through his tough-guy image and violence. While allegedly behaving politely when not provoked, he reacted quickly and viciously if he felt insulted. He appears to have felt insulted often. In 1851, Poole and several other men went to the bar at Florence’s Hotel at Broadway and Howard Street, near Poole’s own saloon at the same corner, in lower Manhattan. When Charles Owen, the bartender, refused to serve them a third round, they brutally beat him, (reports claim they “beat his face to a jelly”). Then they searched for the proprietor, John Florence; failing to find him, they ripped up his hat and stomped on it. Florence and Owens pressed charges, but the outcome of that case is unknown. In another incident, Poole was indicted for assaulting a police officer at Jefferson Market Police Court in Greenwich Village. He was there to post bail for two men who had been arrested for disorderly conduct. When the officer tried to clear the court, Poole grabbed him around the neck and tried to gouge out his eye. Poole was tried for assaulting the police officer, resulting in an injury that was evident during the officer’s testimony. Witnesses claimed that the officer shoved Poole first, but they conceded that Poole had responded violently. Poole was acquitted by a jury of his peers.
Poole became known for his bare-knuckle boxing and for being a leader of the Know Nothing political movement. The movement was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to republican values and controlled by the Pope in Rome.

Two centuries before Charles Dickens visited Manhattan, the island was the centre of a Dutch colony known as New Netherland. In 1626, Peter Minuit (the colony’s first director general) “bought” the land – about twenty thousand acres – from Native Americans.  The price was sixty guilders’ worth of trading items (the equivalent of $24).

At the time, Manhattan provided the Dutch colonists with a pastoral setting, suitable for farming and pasturing.  It also gave them a more secure location – in a fort – where they could band together against common enemies.

The Dutch colonists called their farms “bouweries.”  By the 1650s, about a thousand Dutch colonists lived on Manhattan Island.

In 1664, King Charles II claimed New Netherland as Britain’s territory.  As the story goes, the only person who resisted the idea was the colony’s governor, Peter Stuyvesant, since the colonists thought they would have more freedom under British rule.

With the loss of Dutch control, Manhattan’s town of New Amsterdam became the city of New York.  Over the years, pastoral settings gave way to urban sprawl.

Then … came the Gangs of New York.

Five Points (as depicted in Valentine’s Manual, 1855), was named for the points created by the intersections of Park, Worth and Baxter Streets. By the mid-1800s, Five Points was known as New York City’s most notorious slum neighbourhood. It was home to an infamous, overcrowded tenement – the Old Brewery – near Paradise Square.

The area was filled with immigrants trying to make a new life in a foreign city. (Later the Brewery was turned into a mission.) Five Points was also a place where politicians “bought” votes in “stolen elections” and gangs, like the Irish-immigrant “Dead Rabbits,” flourished.

Wealth and poverty often exist side-by-side and so it was in Five Points. The Tobias Hoffman family, who owned a bakery, used expensive porcelain dishes. Others, who worked in nearby tanneries, slaughterhouses and breweries, were “jammed” into tenement flats. Often, they had no money for food.

Five Points was a noisy part of New York. Normal life – not just gang fights – took place on the streets. Women and girls (in Five Points and throughout the city) were paid extremely low wages.  Children sometimes said that they “didn’t live nowhere.”

The tenements of New York were filled with desperately poor people who could not make a decent living.  Their doors were often marked by a “white badge of mourning,” signifying the death of a child.

Although life in Five Points was difficult, archaeological digs have unearthed evidence of legitimate businesses. Fencing operations, which were “shops for the reception and purchase of stolen goods,” were not the only business establishments in the area’s slums. Five Points was always a mixed residential, industrial and commercial neighbourhood. Retail shops prospered along Chatham Street (now called Park Row). Rum shops and saloons were also permanent fixtures of the Five Points’ landscape.

“The Bowery” plays a significant role in Gangs of New York. It is a part of the city which owes its name to the “boweries” of early New Yorkers.

William “Bill the Butcher” Poole.

Famous for the Bowery House (and much later the “Bowery Boys” gang), the Bowery was once a pastoral place. The road (built over an old Indian trail) leading to the farm of Peter Stuyvesant, New Amsterdam’s strong-willed, influential and autocratic 17th-century governor, was called the Bowery.

After the English wrested control of Manhattan Island from the Dutch in 1664, and New Amsterdam became New York City, wealthy families built weekend retreats in the Bowery’s rural area. But after poverty-stricken immigrants, fleeing catastrophic events like the 1845-48 Irish potato famine, streamed into New York, the character of the city – including the Bowery – changed.

As New York City grew, wealthy people left the rural area of lower Manhattan in favour of Fifth Avenue and Washington Heights, farther north. By the mid-1800s, the Bowery road led to theatres and dance halls instead of farms. Nineteenth-century saloons (replacing seventeenth-century “plantations”) were part of the landscape. Organizations, like the Bowery branch of the YMCA, provided shelter and food for young men who needed it.

Some of those young men, living in lower Manhattan, were recent immigrants from famine-stricken Ireland.

In 1845, a blight ruined Ireland’s potato crop. A single-crop failure should not have caused a deadly famine. But a national disaster quickly followed when other crops – which had NOT failed – were exported.

With nothing to sell, potato farmers had no money to pay rent. Landlords evicted families from their homes as starving mothers begged for food. Fathers, trying to provide some type of shelter for their families, carved “hovels” out of Irish bog. Death had descended on the Emerald Isle.

Those who survived had one thought: leave Ireland. Within four years, a million people fled the country. But “Famine Ships” became “Coffin Ships” as already ill people could not survive the crossing to America. By the time ships arrived in Boston or New York, they were far less crowded than when they had left Europe.

Once in New York, immigrants from the same country tended to live in the same neighbourhoods. And young men from those neighbourhoods tended to form gangs. Among the most notorious gangs, in the mid-1800s, were those from the Irish section of Five Points.

By 1857, vast numbers of Irish working people – trying to escape restrictive laws and famine in their own country – had moved to New York City. Aiming to curb immigrants’ drinking habits, the New York State Assembly passed a Liquor Excise Law which closed saloons on Sundays. The law took effect on Sunday, the 4th of July, 1857.

Totally disregarding the law aimed directly at them, the Irish people of Five Points kept their saloons open. When the police tried to enforce the law, the Irish – led by the “Dead Rabbits” gang – started a riot. The police – aided by the “Bowery Boys” gang – were quick to respond. Several people died in the fighting.

Although the lives of street children in tenement New York were extremely difficult, It is not hard to imagine, however, that historical gang members (like William Poole – known as “Bill the Butcher”) were capable of killing people.

Uncle Sam’s youngest son, Citizen Know Nothing / Sarony & Co., lith., 117 Fulton St., N.Y. A bust portrait of a young man representing the nativist ideal of the Know-Nothing party. He wears a bold tie and a fedora-type hat tilted at a rakish angle. The portrait is framed by intricate carving and scrollwork surmounted by an eagle with a shield and is draped by an American flag. Behind the eagle is a gleaming star. The flag hangs from a staff at left which has a liberty cap on its end. The Citizen Know Nothing figure appears in several nativist prints of the period (for instance “The Young America Schottisch,” no. 1855-5) and is probably an idealized type rather than an actual individual.

The anti-foreign, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant “Native American” political party was formed in 1843. (At the time, the phrase “Native American” referred to people born in the U.S. and NOT to the indigenous people of the country.) William Poole was a member of the New York branch of that organization (which was often called the “Know Nothing” Party). He was also the head of his own West Side gang.

The Native Americans used Poole as their chief “enforcer.” As a butcher in real life, Poole (wielding the knife of his trade) could accurately hit a target from 20 feet. He had served an “apprenticeship” with the Bowery Boys, was known to gouge out the eyes of his foes, stood more than six feet, and weighed more than 200 pounds.

He, and members of his gang had special jobs to do for the Nativists on election days: commandeer votes. It is said that they stood outside polling places with bludgeons in their hands. Sometimes they forced people to vote more than once. They sought to elect candidates who would guard against “foreigners” getting jobs they believed should go to native-born Americans.

The Irish-immigrant gangs of Five Points, who owed their allegiance to the Democrats of Tammany Hall, were afraid of Poole. Even the Dead Rabbits (whose chief “slugger” carried a dead rabbit impaled on a pike”) avoided him.

The Native Americans likewise targeted Irish immigrants. After a riot in Philadelphia, the July 18, 1844, issue of the Pennsylvania Freeman noted:

The immediate cause of these frightful outbreaks is unquestionably to be attributed to the formation of the Native American Party – a party which should be discountenanced by every friend of human brotherhood…

…There will be no safety, no repose, no end to mobocratic excesses, until that party everywhere be resolved into its original elements, and cease to wound the heart and vex the ear of the suffering humanity.

 

More than six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, William Poole stood out in an age of small men. He began his career in the Bowery Boys, New York’s most important street gang. Unlike today’s gangsters, the Boys were working men–whether labourers or self-employed small businessmen like Poole, who was a butcher by profession as well as avocation. They were also, the most ferocious rough-and-tumble fighters that ever cracked a skull or gouged out an eyeball. Here, too, Poole stood out, for he fought like a berserker.

By the mid-1850s, Poole had drifted into freelance political enforcing. His personal gang controlled the Christopher St. waterfront. Militant supporters of the Know-Nothing party, Poole and his men bitterly opposed Irish-Catholic immigration, hating the immigrants as cheap labour competing for their jobs and loathing the politicians who pandered for the immigrant vote.

New York City’s Nativists were not all thugs. The Know-Nothings had elected James Harper–a partner in the Harper Brothers publishing house–mayor for one term. In other states, they elected governors, congressmen and state legislators. Regaining City Hall through ballot box stuffing and terror seemed entirely possible. Seen in this light, Bill the Butcher was a pioneer in using street fighters to dominate a nominally democratic society. Two generations later, the same idea would occur to Benito Mussolini.

Poole emerged from the shadows by joining forces with political boss Captain Isaiah Rynders. The Captain, a former riverboat gambler and knife fighter, operated his political organization, the Americus Club, from a bar on Park Row across from City Hall. A one-time U.S. Marshal, Rynders was a virulent racist who left the Democratic Party during the 1850s for the Nativists. Among his new friends was Bill Poole.

It was during this time that young John Morrissey charged into the Americus Club and challenged every man in the bar. Poole was among the dozen or so thugs who accepted Morrissey’s challenge with a flurry of mugs, clubs and bung starters. Rynders was moved by Morrissey’s audacity and courage (Morrissey convalesced in his best bedroom, complete with attending physicians and nurses) and even offered him a job. Morrissey declined, largely because he detested Bill the Butcher.

The Butcher had announced he would seize the ballot boxes at an upcoming election. Some honest and wealthy citizens, knowing the police would not enforce the election law, retained Morrissey. Before the polls opened, Morrissey had stationed some fifty men in and about the building, ordering it held to the death. He also let it be known that there would be no adverse criticism if Bill the Butcher’s bullies were permanently maimed, and that ears and noses would be highly regarded as souvenirs of an interesting occasion
Poole and his men rushed the building around noon. On observing Morrissey and his welcoming committee, the Butcher paused, glaring at the Tammanyites. But hatred did not overwhelm Poole’s common sense: the Butcher knew how to count, and so he left with his men. This made Morrissey’s reputation, and Tammany permitted him to open a small gambling house without undue police interference, which soon made him a wealthy man.

Bill Poole and John Morrissey had first crossed paths in a brawl at the Americus club in the Bowery. The owner of the club, Capt. Isaiah Rynders , had left Tammany Hall—the Democratic political machine that controlled New York City—to join the anti-immigrant Native American party. The Native Americans were a secret organization, also called the Know Nothings, not because of their ignorance, but because when questioned about their activities they would claim to know nothing. Rynders had changed the name of his club from the Empire to the Americus and it became headquarters for gang leaders such as boxing champion Tom Hyer and up and coming fighter Bill “The Butcher” Poole who fought for the Know Nothings.

John Morrissey was also a prize fighter and claimed the title of Heavyweight Champion of America, though his 1853 bout with Yankee Sullivan was won on a technicality and his claim to the title was not accepted by all. He was an Irish immigrant, at the time living in Troy, New York. During a trip to New York City he decided to single-handedly destroy the Americus club. Strong as he was, Morrissey was no match for Hyer, Poole, and the rest of the Know Nothing bruisers. Morrissey later moved to New York and became the muscle behind Tammany Hall, organizing a group of toughs including Blacksmith Dan Edgar, Lew Baker, Jim Turner, Paudeen McLaughlin (who had his nose bitten off during a brawl) and the notorious Five Points gang, the Dead Rabbits.
Bill Poole, a butcher by trade, was a former member of the Bowery Boys street gang, who now led his own gang fighting under the banner of the Native Americans. It was an alliance of the Washington Market Gang, the “Red Rover” Engine Company No. 34, and fellow boxers Smut Ackerman and Tommy Collins.
Though the animosity between the two groups was on the surface political, everyone knew that deep down it was driven by personal feuds between the members. There were frequent, violent clashes between the two gangs.

In January 1855, Turner and Baker went into a saloon in the basement of Wallach’s theatre on Broadway and found Tom Hyer drinking hot rum at the bar. As they passed, Turner knocked the glass from Hyer’s lips and made a remark questioning the legitimacy of Hyer’s birth. When Hyer responded, Turner and Baker each drew pistols. Hyer said he wanted no trouble but Turner fired twice and one shot grazed Hyer’s neck. Hyer pulled his own pistol but fired into the wall saying he did not want to kill anyone. When he saw Turner cock his gun again Hyer hurled him to the floor. Meanwhile Baker, who had been unable to cock his pistol, came up behind Hyer and began hitting him with the butt of the gun. He threw Baker on the ground as well. When a policeman came into the saloon, Hyer demanded Baker be arrested but the policeman refused to interfere in “a private fight between gentlemen.” Hyer dragged Baker outside and the fight continued. Baker pulled out a knife and severely cut Hyer’s knuckles. Hyer kicked the knife from his hand and proceeded to knock Baker unconscious. When he went back in the saloon he found that Turner had left through the back door.
Both the Tammany gang and the Native Americans were now arming for battle. A few days later Bill the Butcher met Baker in a Canal street dive and gave him a fierce beating. This time a policeman intervened before Poole could kill his opponent. From then on Baker always travelled heavily armed and always accompanied by Turner or McLaughlin.

John Morrissey felt the time was right to challenge Poole to a “rough and tumble” fight with nothing barred. It was a matchup that sporting men had been longing to see. Both men were over six feet tall and both weighed more than two hundred pounds. Poole was considered the more ferocious, but Morrissey had greater science and speed. Morrissey met Poole in a Broadway saloon and bet $50 that Poole could not name a place where Morrissey would not fight him. Poole suggested Christopher Pier, in the heart of the neighbourhood controlled by Poole’s gang. Morrissey knew he would not be safe there and paid the bet without protest. A few minutes later he asked Poole to name another place. Poole named the Amos Street dock, one block north of Christopher. This time Morrissey agreed to meet him at 7:00 the next morning, July 27, 1854.

The next day Morrissey with accompanied by a dozen Tammany men were met at the Amos Street dock by hundreds of Bill The Butcher’s supporters. Most accounts say it was an ambush, that Poole never showed up and Morrissey was severely beaten by the crowd. But a New York Daily Times article of July 28, 1854, claims that Bill the Butcher had arrived by rowboat at 6:30, and that the two men fought on the dock surrounded closely by Poole’s supporters. They had only fought for half a minute before Poole had Morrissey on the ground. He held him there for five minutes before Morrissey said “enough.” Having won the fight Poole left as he had arrived, by rowboat. Then a free-for-all ensued in which Morrissey and the other Tammany men were badly beaten.

Brooklyn Eagle, March 10, 1855.

The night of February 24, 1855, Morrissey was in the backroom of the newly opened Stanwix Hall, opposite the Metropolitan Hotel on Broadway, playing cards with Mark Maguire, King of the Newsboys. Morrissey heard Poole’ s voice then ran up and began swearing at him. Morrissey pulled a pistol and fired three times at Poole’s head, but the gun missed fire each time. Poole drew his own revolver but Maguire intervened saying,

“You wouldn’t kill a helpless man in cold blood would you?”

Poole threw his pistol to the floor, grabbed two carving knives from the lunch counter and hurled them into to the bar, inviting either Maguire or Morrissey to a knife fight. Both men declined, knowing Poole’s prowess with the knife. Baker, who had received a message about the fight, came into Stanwix Hall and would have joined the fray but he was closely followed by the police who arrested both Poole and Morrissey.
After they were released later that night, Poole returned to Stanwix Hall, ostensibly to apologize to the bartender. Shortly after midnight, Baker, Turner, McLaughlin, and several other Tammany men entered the Hall. Last to come in was Paudeen McLaughlin who locked the door behind him and turned to Poole saying
“What are you looking at, you black muzzled bastard?”

McLaughlin grabbed Poole by the lapel and spit in his face and dared him to fight. Poole very coolly took out five golden eagle coins and offered to wager $500 that he could whip any of them. At this point Turner said quickly “Sail in.” pulled out a Colt revolver and began to shoot. Turner managed to shoot himself in the arm before hitting Poole in the leg. Then Poole either attacked Baker or fell on him after being shot. They scuffled and while Baker was over Poole, Baker pulled out his own revolver saying, “I guess I will take you anyhow.” He shot into Poole’s chest putting a bullet in his heart. Baker fired again at Poole, then escaped from the saloon. Poole got back on his feet, grabbed a knife and began chasing Baker but before he could reach the door he fell into the arms of his friend Charley Shay.
The Butcher lived fourteen days after the shooting. His doctors found it unnatural that he should live so long after taking a bullet in the heart. Certainly, he had time to compose his last words. He died with Hyer and other friends about his bed. With Tom Hyer and other Native Americans by his bedside, he died on March 8, 1851. Before he died he said he had not fired a shot that night and that he believed that Morrissey was the cause of the tragedy. His last words were:
“Good bye boys: I die a true American!”

Everyone implicated in the murder gave themselves up or were arrested that night except for Baker. Baker fled to Jersey City and there took passage on the brig Isabella Jewett bound for the Canary Islands. When his destination was learned, financier George Law placed his clipper yacht Grapeshot at the disposal of authorities. Baker was arrested in the port of Teneriffe and taken back to New York.

Baker was indicted along with John Morrissey, James Turner, Cornelius Linn, Charles Van Pelt, John Huyler, James Irving, and Patrick “Paudeen” McLaughlin, for having feloniously killed William Poole with a loaded pistol. The trial lasted fifteen days, and the jury deliberated for just over a day but were unable to reach a verdict. It was reported that nine jurors voted for conviction and three for acquittal. The three for acquittal were of foreign birth.
Baker was tried twice more but each time resulted in a hung jury. He was eventually released.
The first trial prompted one newspaper to remark:
The trial is especially remarkable as having developed a state of crime and ruffianism in our city that is truly startling. The inefficiency of our present police system, the delays of justice, the frequent escapes from punishment of well-known offenders, as herein manifest, calls loudly for reform—not a reform that will waste and spend itself in mere words but for practical results.

They gave Bill The Butcher Poole a hero’s funeral, with thousands lining lower Broadway as a half-dozen brass bands while thousands of men marched in his procession from Christopher St. to Whitehall St., whence his remains were ferried to Brooklyn.

Poole’s death spurred intense reaction throughout the city. Some 250,000 mourners crowded into the streets of lower Manhattan and as many as could filed past his body that lay in state at his home. The two-mile long funeral procession of around six thousand people included well-placed local politicians, a large band, firemen, members of militia companies and fraternal organizations, as well as representatives from “Poole Associations,” newly formed organizations originating in not only New York, but also in Baltimore, and Philadelphia as well.

The Butcher had one of the largest funerals ever seen in the city of New York City, with thousands of mourners following the casket from Christopher Street to the Battery where a ferry took the remains to Green-Wood Cemetery. It was reported that so many people stood on the roofs of buildings to watch the procession that one house collapsed under the weight killing four people. John Morrissey organized an array of Five Points thugs including the “Original Hounds” Engine Number 36 and a gang called the Short Boys to throw rocks and bricks at the mourners.
John Morrissey defeated John C. Heenan in 1858 to become undisputed Heavyweight Champion of America. He retired from boxing six months later to devote his time to his gambling casinos and his political career.

The firefighters back in the day were a gang. Because the threat of fire burning New York to ashes was a major concern and since there were no city nor state-funded fire departments, many citizens volunteered as firemen and gangs formed around various firehouses and companies.

The Plug Uglies got their name by putting a wooden barrel over a fireplug and guarded it so rival fire departments could not use it to put out the fire. Cash rewards were given out by insurance companies to the first fire company on the scene, and the second company on the scene got less. It was not uncommon for rival fire companies to duke it out for the privilege of putting out a fire while a home or building burned down.

Gangs such as the Bowery Boys, Broadway Boys, and The 40 Thieves were all real gangs mentioned in the movie Gangs of New York.

 


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